The 2016 college football season begins in earnest this week (not that we aren’t counting Cal’s 51-31 win over Hawaii, which included new Golden Bears QB Davis Webb’s impressive debut), and to get you ready, we have compiled the 30 PFF facts – pulled from our grades and data – that you need to know entering the season.
We’ve listed them 1-30, organized by conference:
1. UNC’s Elijah Hood averaged 4.10 yards after contact per rush last season — highest among returning Power-5 running backs. Between Hood, breakout QB candidate Mitch Trubisky and one of the nation’s best defensive backfields, the Tar Heels are a team to watch entering 2016.
2. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson had an adjusted completion rate versus pressure last season of 47.6 percent last year – third-worst in the nation. Granted, he was one of the country’s most accurate QBs overall and earned the second-best rushing grade, but he’ll need to improve in this area in 2016 as he makes a run at the Heisman.
3. Florida State’s Marquez White allowed just 0.46 yards per coverage snaps last season, lowest among returning Power-5 cornerbacks. Between White and Derwin James (see below), who has the potential to be the nation’s best defender this season, the Seminoles have arguable the best returning secondary in college football.
4. Miami’s Brad Kaaya had an adjusted completion rate of 48 percent on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield. That’s good for 10th in the nation among returning quarterbacks. Put him on your breakout list for 2016.
5. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson averaged 8.1 yards per rush last season. That was the most in college football among QBs with 100 or more rushes. 20 of his 37 forced missed tackles came on scrambles, so Cardinals opponents better watch out when the initial play breaks down.
6. Three of Michigan’s four defensive line starters ranked first or second in pass-rush productivity last season at their respective position groups. Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton will man the edges for the Wolverines this season, while Maurice Hurst joins Ryan Glasgow (who ranked a mere 18th in pass-rush productivity at his position group) on the inside of arguably the nation’s best D-line.
7. Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis led all cornerbacks with 15 passes defensed last season. That’s just one reason he earned the No. 1 overall grade among all corners. He is yet another reason why Michigan could be the nation’s best defense this year.
8. Saquon Barkley earned the highest elusive rating in college football a year ago as a true freshman. That was after forcing 60 missed tackles on his 182 rush attempts. Plays like this helped:
9. Only 430 of Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett’s 1,802 rushing yards the last two seasons have come on scrambles. That means most of his production on the ground has taken place on the ground. He still has improvements to make as a passer, but ranks as one of the best running QBs in college football.
10. Nebraska’s Jordan Westerkamp earned a deep-ball catch rate of 52.2 percent a season ago. That was the fourth-best rate among returning Power-5 receivers. He is one of the reasons why the Huskers could have one of the Big Ten’s top offenses this season.
11. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield earned a passer rating of 117.4 when under pressure last season. That’s better than any other returning QB earned overall. That’s just one reason he was able to earn the top overall grade among returning quarterbacks last season.
12. Charles Walker earned a run-stop percentage of 11.2 last season – No. 1 among returning 3-4 defensive ends. He also ranked fourth at the position in pass-rush productivity, and leads a very productive returning Oklahoma defense into the 2016 campaign.
13. Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph earned an adjusted completion rate of 57.3 on throws of 20-plus yards, the No. 1 rate among returning QBs. That’s even more impressive given that over 20 percent of his passes were deep. He’ll push Mayfield for top QB honors in the conference.
14. TCU’s Denzel Johnson earned the fourth-highest overall grade among returning Power-5 safeties last year. With several highly graded returners joining transfer QB Kenny Hill, who graded better than No. 1 overall pick of Florida State Jameis Winston in 2014 while at Texas A&M, the Horned Frogs are an intriguing team entering 2016.
15. Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes II was only sacked on 11.7 percent of pressured dropbacks last season. That’s the eighth-lowest rate among returning quarterbacks, and his elusiveness in the pocket, as a scrambler and on designed runs make him a potential breakout candidate this year.
16. UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley ranked fourth among 3-4 defensive ends in both pass-rush productivity and run-stop percentage a year ago. Look for more explosiveness out of McKinley as he moves to an edge-rush position and is re-joined by defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, who graded very well in his one game of action last year before suffering a season-ending injury.
17. Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey averaged 3.20 yards per route run as a pass-catcher last season. That was first among running backs and would have ranked eighth among wide receivers, which is incredible given that he was targeted almost exclusively less than 10 yards downfield. Why throw deep when you can do this?
18. Washington’s Jake Browning earned an adjusted completion rate of 66.7 when under pressure. That was good for second-best in the nation among returning QBs. What’s even more remarkable is that he did so as a true freshman, grading better on a per-snap basis when under pressure than he did from a clean pocket. He is a potential breakout star in 2016.
19. USC’s Zach Banner earned a pass-blocking efficiency score of 98.3 last year. That’s the best rate among returning Power-5 offensive tackles in the nation. He allowed just one sack and nine total QB pressures in 406 pass-blocking snaps. That’s why the Trojans made our preseason list of the 10 best O-lines in college football.
20. Washington State’s Luke Falk earned an adjusted completion rate of 78.7 percent. That was best among all college QBs. He is just one reason the Cougars should have an excellent offense this season.
21. Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs averaged 4.5 yards after contact per carry last season. That’s more than any running back in the nation. That’s after forcing 45 missed tackles on 125 carries. Between Dobbs and the nation’s top running back duo in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, the Vols have an absolutely loaded backfield.
22. Alabama’s Tim Williams recorded 52 QB pressures last season. That is the most among returning 3-4 outside linebackers – despite his being on the field for only 147 pass-rush snaps. For perspective, Louisville’s Devonte Fields ranks second with 49 pressures and had 339 pass-rush snaps). Williams and teammate Ryan Anderson rank first and fifth-respectively in pass-rush productivity at the position.
23. LSU’s Leonard Fournette forced 85 missed tackles as a runner last season. That’s more than any other running back in the nation. That was one factor in his earning the No. 1 rushing grade in college football. (See the top 10 returning Power-5 backs in broken tackles below.)
24. Six of the top-20 returning edge defenders in PFF come from the SEC. That include Nos. 1 and 2: Tennessee DE Derek Barnett and Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett. Those two combined for 108 total QB pressures a year ago, including 21 sacks.
25. Georgia’s Nick Chubb ranked No. 1 among Power-5 running backs in elusive rating in 2014. He missed most of 2015 due to injury, but if he’s fully healthy this season the Bulldogs have an excellent 1-2 rushing punch in Chubb and Sony Michel, who performed very well in Chubb’s absence last season.
26. Houston’s Greg Ward earned the No. 1 rushing grade among quarterbacks last season. He was very dangerous on designed runs, with 19 of his 21 rushing TDs coming on such plays, but he also averaged more than 10 yards per scramble.
27. Notre Dame earned a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 89.6 last season. That is the third-best score among Power-5 teams, and part of the reason why the Fighting Irish ranked No. 1 in our preseason list of the best offensive lines in college football.
28. Western Kentucky’s Taywan Taylor averaged 4.07 yards per route run last year. That is the highest average among returning players this season, and tied with first-round pick of the Washington Redskins, Josh Doctson. He finished 2015 with 86 catches for 1,469 yards and 17 touchdowns.
29. Southern Miss’ Nick Mullens earned the No. 1 passing grade among returning QBs last season. He has a chance to be the next star quarterback outside the Power-5 conferences.
30. Boise State RB Jeremy McNichols earned the second-best receiving grade among all returning backs last season. Only McCaffrey, our preseason pick for the Heisman, graded better. Between McNichols, WR Thomas Sperbeck and sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien, the Broncos have the makings of a strong offensive core. They rank No. 14 in PFF’s preseason Top 25.